7 Excellent Communication Skills for You, Parent
How can you be a parent your child wants to talk with?
As a child therapist, the most common complaint I hear from parents is, “He just won’t talk to me.” Feeling estranged from your own child is painful, and it has implications for the child. Research indicates the most important predictor of a child’s emotional and psychological stability is the closeness of the parent/child relationship. Obviously, if the child is not opening up when they are upset, the relationship is not as close as it needs to be.
There are two habits that parents routinely engage in that shut down communication and drive a child away: negating feelings and mistaking sympathy for empathy.
Sympathy vs. empathy
When a child is truly in distress because they feel hurt, disappointed, worried, or angry, they desperately need their parent. Yet, often, parents don’t want to see their child feeling negatively, so their first instinct is to tell their child not to feel the way they do. Before they think, statements such as “don’t be disappointed” or “don’t be mad” escape. This results in the child feeling ashamed of how they feel, compounding the hurt. Moreover, the knowledge that their parent does not understand leaves them feeling alone, which is detrimental. Basically, the child learns that opening up about how they feel makes them feel worse.
Statements to avoid:
- Don’t worry.
- Don’t feel that way.
- Don’t be disappointed.
- Don’t be like that.
- Don’t be mad.
- You are too sensitive.
A better idea is to empathize. Honor their feelings. Feelings are never wrong; it’s what kids do with feelings that can get them in trouble. Examples of empathy include:
- That’s a big worry. I get it.
- You are upset. I would be too.
- You have every right to feel disappointed. I felt like that when I was your age.
- You are mad. I understand. You have every right.
- It hurts to see someone do something you want to be able to do, but can’t yet.
- You are mad. I’m sure you have a good reason. I want to hear about it.
After you give them a solid dose of empathy, the child feels understood and connected to you, which means they immediately feel better and will want your help in problem solving. In many cases, the empathy is all they need to feel better. Simply knowing their parent understands allows them to feel secure and forge ahead.
In addition, just because you empathize with how your child feels does not automatically mean you are condoning bad behavior. For example, my son came in the door angry last week. He slammed the door and threw his coat down. I said, “You are mad. I don’t know why, but you probably have a very good reason, and I want to hear about it, but you can’t throw your coat. Go pick it up.” After he picked up his jacket, he immediately came to me and told me he was upset about a conflict he got into with a friend.
Here’s how it works: Empathy creates good vagal tone in a child’s brain and immediately calms them. After receiving empathy, they settle down and can logically think through problems with you. They also feel understood and close to you which allows them to forge ahead with a sense of security.
No parent wants a child who feels sorry for themselves, plays the victim, or is overly dramatic, and maybe that is the fear that prevents a parent from being empathic. However, honoring their child’s feelings is actually what prevents a sense of entitlement or a victim mentality in a child. Sympathy, on the other hand, disrupts any chance of emotional attunement and tempts parents to enable. The parent saves and rescues their child from negative feelings instead of helping them work through difficult feelings.
For example, on the way home from hockey practice one night my eight-year-old son, Jimmy, said to me, “Mom, I was the worst one tonight. I’m the worst one every night. I barely got put in.”
Now, I have two choices, the sympathetic response or the empathic response.
1. The sympathetic response:“Poor guy, Im going to call your coach and talk to him. I don’t think it’s fair that he benches you for most of the practice.”
2. The empathic response:“That hurts, kiddo. It hurts to feel like you’re the worst one. I get it. I’ve felt like that a lot in my life. It stinks. Keep at it. It will get better.”
In essence, the sympathetic response tempts us to enable and ask that the rules be changed or concessions be made for our child, which teaches them to play the victim. Also, it requires no emotional investment on the parent’s part because the parent becomes the powerful saver and rescuer, which strokes the parent’s ego. It is the easy way out.
The empathic response requires the parent shift from how they feel to how the child feels. It’s emotional attunement. It’s the parent remembering how it feels to be the worst one at something, so they can relate to their child. It’s selfless and it puts the child first, emotionally. When there is emotional attunement, the child feels understood and connected to you, which allows them to feel secure and more able to forge ahead and try again. Empathy creates a rugged work ethic and resilience in a child. The child will thrive on adversity instead of breaking down when negative things happen. Empathy creates brave and strong human beings.
Stay close to your child. Empathize and empower. The reward will be priceless.
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How do you talk with your child? Did you know how you talk changes their brain?
[This article was written by Sophie Hardach and can be found here.]
Most parents know that talking to their child helps them develop. But a new study has revealed that it’s how you talk to your child that really matters for their brain growth. Rather than just spewing complex words at them, or showing flashcards in the hope of enriching their vocabulary, the key is to engage them in “conversational turns” – in other words, a good old chat.
In a study of children between the ages of 4 and 6, cognitive scientists at MIT found that such back-and-forth conversation changes the child’s brain. Specifically, it can boost the child’s brain development and language skills, as measured both by a range of tests and MRI brain scans. This was the case regardless of parental income or education.
“The important thing is not just to talk to your child, but to talk with your child. It’s not just about dumping language into your child’s brain, but to actually carry on a conversation with them,” said Rachel Romeo, a graduate student at Harvard and MIT and the lead author of the paper.
The finding adds an important twist to what we know about language and development. In 1995, a seminal studyestablished that children from the wealthiest families hear about 30 million more words by age three than children from the poorest families. The authors of that study argued that the “30-million-word gap” set the children off on fundamentally different developmental trajectories that affected their experiences later on.
Today, there are countless educational apps and toys devoted to filling that word gap and expanding children’s vocabulary from day one. However, trying to inundate children with millions of words may be missing a crucial factor in development: human relationships, and social interaction.
In fact, the MIT study suggests that parents should perhaps talk less, and listen more.
"The number of adult words didn’t seem to matter at all for the brain function. What mattered was the number of conversational turns," Romeo said.
The children in the study wore recorders at home that registered each word they spoke or heard. Scientists then analyzed these recordings for “conversational turns”, or back-and-forth exchanges between an adult and the child. They found that the number of conversational turns correlated strongly with the children’s scores in a range of language tests. It also correlated with more activity in the area of Broca’s area, the area of the brain involved in speech production and language processing, when the children listened to stories while their brains were being scanned. These correlations were much stronger than between the number of words heard, and test scores or brain activity.
“The really novel thing about our paper is that it provides the first evidence that family conversation at home is associated with brain development in children. It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain,” says John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and the senior author of the study.
The study noted that while children from wealthier families were exposed to more language on average, children from poor but chatty families had language skills and brain activity similar to those wealthier children. This was an important finding that prompted researchers to encourage parents from all backgrounds to engage with their children - including interactive chatting with babies, for example by making sounds back and forth or copying faces.
“One of the things we’re excited about is that it feels like a relatively actionable thing because it’s specific,” Gabrielli said. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy for less educated families, under greater economic stress, to have more conversation with their child. But at the same time, it’s a targeted, specific action, and there may be ways to promote or encourage that.”
The idea of learning through social engagement and emotional bonding chimes with other research on how infants learn language. Babies tend to learn by watching and copying the adults they are most attached to, which is why singing and cuddling are much more effective than high-tech educational toolswhen it comes to development. Later, children learn most effectively through play, for example imaginary role play with friends or adults.
Chatting also requires more complex cognitive skills than only listening, or only talking. According to the MIT researchers, having a conversation allows children to practice understanding what the other person is trying to say, and how to respond appropriately. This is very different from merely having to listen.
Roberta Golinkoff, a professor of education at the University of Delaware School of Education who was not involved in the study, said the study added to evidence that language development went far beyond filling the word gap.
“You can talk to a child until you’re blue in the face, but if you’re not engaging with the child and having a conversational duet about what the child is interested in, you’re not going to give the child the language processing skills that they need,” said Golinkoff.